NS EXCLUSIVE: The Diamonds are shaping up and getting ready to ship out

NS EXCLUSIVE: The Diamonds are shaping up and getting ready to ship out

When the Origin Australian Diamonds arrive at the Commonwealth Games next year, it will be on the back of less international match practice than the other top ranked nations. Courtesy of Covid, border closures and cancelled series, they will – most likely – have played just eight test matches since the 2019 Netball World Cup.

It’s in stark contrast to most of their rivals, with the host nation, England, topping the list with 25 games under their belts.

National coach, Stacey Marinkovich, said, “The situation is a challenge. We’ve got athleticism in abundance, the mindset of being competitive, and are working towards putting the right strategies in place at the right time, getting connection and cohesion out on court.

“We haven’t had much of an opportunity to do that under pressure (of international match play).”

 

Diamonds’ camp

Bedding down a new-look on and off court team takes time, and so the Diamonds made the most of a recent two week camp in Brisbane. Together with regular off and on court sessions, they had extended periods of match practice.

The group knew – theoretically – how they wanted to play, having done it in strong bursts during the January Constellation Cup. With enough players available to make two starting sevens, and Quad series’ selection on the line, there was no quarter given whenever the squad hit the court.

Marinkovich said, “I was thrilled with how camp went. We had to achieve a lot in a short time. It does take a great mindset from the players to come into camp with focus and intent, and in the best possible physical and mental shape after the challenging domestic season we all had.

“We worked at instilling our game plan and our connections on and off court. The big test now will be going to the UK, playing against opposition with different styles, and seeing how it all holds up.”

A key moment in camp was announcing the Diamonds’ 25th national captain, Liz Watson, together with vice-captain, Steph Wood. The decision was made by the playing group, and affirmed by the head coach, Netball Australia and former captain Liz Ellis, all of whom were involved in the selection process.

An overwhelming favourite for the role, Watson brings, according to Marinkovich, a focus on success.

“She’s a person who understands she doesn’t have to control the environment, but is able to empower those around her to take collective accountability for our performance. She leads by example and brings the rest of the team on the journey with her.”

Following the camp, a 15 person squad was selected for the January 2022 Quad Series, to be held between Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa.

Caitlin Bassett, Kiera Austin and Kim Jenner were all omitted from the tour, as they are at different points in their injury recovery. Marinkovich said, “Those players are working with the Diamonds’ physio and following a conditioning programme. Caitlin’s recovery from two surgeries, one on each knee, is taking a little bit of time.”

 

Stacey Marinkovich 22.09.2021 pic 1

Stacey Marinkovich at the recent Diamonds’ camp. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

 

The 2022 Quad Series Squad

Shooting Circle

Gretel Bueta, Sophie Dwyer (elevated from training partner), Sophie Garbin, Cara Koenen and Steph Wood.

Across the 2021 Suncorp Super Netball season, the Australian shooters were collectively the most inconsistent group. While Koenen performed on a weekly basis, Wood (return from injury), Bueta (return from maternity leave), Garbin (used as an impact player) and Dwyer (gaining experience) were patchy at times. So does it stand to reason they also have the most room for growth?

Marinkovich certainly thinks so. She said, “It’s an extremely exciting group, that are getting back to playing some consistent netball. As a group they have great versatility, a mixture of athleticism, netball smarts, and an ability to change our game style out on court.

“Their ability and willingness to work and grow with each other and the midcourt was a big focus.”

Sophie Dwyer: “Her attitude was, ‘I understand that I’m young but I want to be held as accountable as any other player.’ She’s a shooter who wants to get into the circle and go to the post. She’s adding strings to her bow, including her movement on court, and the speed at which she can play.”

Cara Koenen: “Cara is continuously working on her variation of movement. She’s deadly on the baseline, and she’s adding to her other attributes, and picking the right moment to put them into play. She links well with all the other shooters, so has great versatility.”

Sophie Garbin: “She came into camp with another level of maturity. Sophie’s learned a lot in the Swifts’ environment about what it takes to be successful and she’s honed in on that, bringing it to our team discussions and her training. Her strengths on court are obvious, and she brought extra hunger and enthusiasm to camp.”

Gretel Bueta: “(Her son) Bobby will be travelling with us to the UK, along with Gretel’s husband as his carer. Bobby also came to camp, and we were able to see how the dynamics worked for Gretel – the balance of being a mum and contributing to the group. She didn’t miss a beat in her involvement with training and the team. Her form will continue to improve, and the signs are great. Her strength, athleticism and decision making are growing, and she’s super impressive.

Steph Wood: “Steph had a few knocks across the SSN season, which impacted her play at times. She fulfilled all training and match play requirements at camp, showing us that she’s ready to play multiple games. She showed such great maturity on court, moved the ball beautifully and created play for others. We all loved having her back in the environment.”

Keen interest will lie in who starts at goal attack – vice captain Wood has the advantage of a strong connection with Koenen and enviable court smarts, Bueta’s height and athleticism make her difficult to match up against both in attack and defence, and Dwyer has impressed everyone with her cool head and hot hands.

Adding Austin and Bassett into the mix for Commonwealth Games selection will give the selectors a headache, albeit a pleasant one. Whether or not either will have enough match practice to challenge for selection, particularly given that Bassett hasn’t been signed by a franchise, is anyone’s guess at this time.

 

Gretel Bueta at Diamonds camp 22 September 2021

Gretel Bueta has built across the domestic season after returning from maternity leave, and was in impressive form at the camp. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

 

Defensive circle

Sunday Aryang, Courtney Bruce, Sarah Klau, Maddy Turner, Jo Weston

Come the Quad series, the Diamonds’ defensive group will keep the opposition guessing. Each athlete is capable of playing a variety of positions, and Marinkovich could potentially trial a range of combinations.

With two established goal defence/goal keeper pairings, it wouldn’t surprise fans to see the Fever and Swifts backlines out on court. In the past we’ve also seen Weston at wing defence, in front of a Bruce/Klau circle combination – the height and reach of this defensive trio could again prove to be a formidable weapon.

Marinkovich said, “The five players have different skill sets, including the ability to wear players down and play tight one-on-one, or to hunt the ball and play space defence. Whether it’s applying pressure or getting intercepts themselves, it’s an exciting mix.

“Working with Nic Richardson (assistant coach) has really brought a different dynamic and added variety. We need to be smart about picking and choosing when we play those strategies, and making sure that we do it to the highest quality.”

At this point in time Bruce, Klau and Weston appear certainties for the Commonwealth Games, with the final place a choice between Aryang, Turner and Jenner. Aryang’s ability to read the play, and just as importantly stay in it – is lethal, and she was the least penalised defender across the SSN season. Turner, on the other hand was the most penalised defender, but does an exceptional job of shutting her opponent out of a game. Jenner’s a proven ball winner, but another athlete who is working on tidying up her penalty count.

 

Sunday Aryang at Diamonds Camp 22/09/2021

Sunday Aryang (pictured) is one of two debutantes called into the team, together with Sophie Dwyer. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

 

Mid court

Ash Brazill, Paige Hadley, Kate Moloney, Jamie-Lee Price, Liz Watson

Midcourt positions proved to be the most challenging for the selectors, with all athletes bringing their own unique abilities to camp. Watson, one of the world’s best at both wing attack and centre, will make a particularly welcome return to the court after foot surgery earlier this year, although may need to be load managed.

Marinkovich is expecting hard and dynamic netball from the midcourters selected. She said, “They were ferociously competitive at camp, but their greater vision for the team and the midcourt unit was special to watch. They know the roles they have to play, and they support each other on court or from the sidelines.”

Liz Watson: “We will keep looking at combinations now that she’s back in the environment, and see where she works best. We will work closely with the Vixens across Liz’s preseason – as we will for all the athletes – to see where she’s at ahead of the January series.”

Ash Brazill: “Braz has such great game awareness, with strength and athleticism both in attacking the ball and close marking her player, but also then driving the ball down the court. It’s great to have her back, and she’s getting stronger and stronger after her recent minor surgery.”

Kate Moloney: “We saw a new level of growth and maturity from Kate this season – her ability to shorten play up, work her possession and take on a more dominant role in hitting the circle edge, was impressive, particularly given the new Vixens’ team members around her.”

Paige Hadley: “Paige took her Swifts’ form into our environment. She can play across a range of midcourt positions with immediate impact, and her dynamic repeat efforts stood out, as did her ability to move the ball with accuracy. She took control of the attack end at camp, and showed the ability to feed the different shooters she played with.”

Jamie-Lee Price: “She’s another player who is continuing to learn and understand what she’s capable of out on court. Coming into the camp environment she played with a lot more freedom, harder running to hit the circle edge, and her defensive skills played havoc in the midcourt.”

As the Diamonds midcourt inevitably has to condense five into four for the Commonwealth Games, questions remain over who backs up Watson at wing attack (most likely Hadley), and whether the Diamonds use a specialist wing defence – Brazill – or are content to slide Price backwards and a goal defence forwards to cover that role.

 

Liz Watson and Steph Wood 22.09.2021

Liz Watson and Steph Wood were named as captain and vice-captain respectively of the Diamonds. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

 

Will there be another test series before the Commonwealth Games?

With the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball season brought forwards – the season will start on the 26th March – and condensed somewhat, it’s likely that the January Quad series will be the Diamonds’ last international match play before the Commonwealth Games. Marinkovich said, “We need to get over there and experience everything in terms of the lead in, the travel, how the environment operates, as well as our performance on court.

“The win-loss aspect of our performance is important, but with it being the first time away for this new group of players and staff, we’ve also got other measures of success and where the gaps are that we will be looking at.

“The transition needs to be as seamless as possible.”

If the recently discovered Omicron variant makes travel too difficult, there’s still potential for a trans-Tasman series to go ahead – New Zealand have an existing MIQ booking – and failing even that opportunity, the possibility of playing against Australian based teams. Marinkovich is known for putting together mixed teams that most closely mirror her opponents, and wouldn’t hesitate to put one in place if needed.

 

What else has Marinkovich been doing?

Despite having stepped away from her role as West Coast Fever coach after the 2021 season finished, Marinkovich hasn’t taken her foot off the pedal. One of her main priorities has been working with the high performance staff of each of the eight Suncorp Super Netball clubs.

She said, “One of my first points of call was to connect with them. The Diamonds exist because of the work they do. So we need to make sure we work in alignment, so that players can transition smoothly in and out of our environment.”

Some much needed thinking time has also been possible, with Marinkovich deep-diving into tour plans and the form of her opponents. She’s also in the process of relocating to the Eastern States, the better to work with athletes and clubs across the 2022 Suncorp Super Netball season.

 

Nicole Richardson 22.09.2021

As defensive coach, Nic Richardson has added her defensive flair to the team. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

 

 

How are the other top nations shaping up?

While the Diamonds’ international match play has been limited, the rigours of the SSN and national camp have kept the athletes busy. While it was disappointing for all to have two Constellation Cups set aside, and the Roses tour cancelled, there are both advantages and disadvantages to the situation.

Australian athletes have had minimal time to adapt to a different set of rules – most notably the inability to call time outs, and for the less experienced athletes, handling the pressure cooker of a test match. However, matches played behind closed doors mean there is also a limited ability for opponents to gather information about the Diamonds – how their combinations, tactics and match play are shaping up.

To some extent South Africa are a lesser-known quantity, as they are still adapting to life without star players Marika Holzhausen and Erin Burger (both retired). It’s also uncertain when star goal shooter Lenize Potgeiter will rejoin the squad, given ongoing management of her mental health, and whether the Proteas have the ability to travel given the recent Omicron outbreak. In welcome news for netball fans, borders have just opened up again between South Africa and the UK, and hopefully will remain that way.

New Zealand will be missing some of their senior players including Ameliaranne Ekenasio, Jane Watson and Katrina Rore (all on maternity leave), although Kayla Johnson and Phoenix Karaka could potentially make their return to the Silver Ferns’ travelling squad, yet to be announced. Rising stars Grace Nweke and Tiana Metuarau have staked their claim on the big stage, and the midcourt is full of experience.

Marinkovich said, “You can never underestimate Noeline’s (Taurua) ability as a coach, and gelling a group of players together. Along with England they’ve had the most international experience since the Netball World Cup, with time to train and connect with each other.”

In the recent test series Jamaica’s limited preparation showed as they dropped the first two games, largely through a lack of connection and wasted opportunities feeding Jhaniele Fowler. A strong victory in the third match showed that with the world’s best shooter and an exceptional defensive end of Shamera Sterling, Kadie-Ann Dehaney, Latty Wilson and likely Jodie-Ann Ward, they will be very tough to beat.

Marinkovich said, “They have enormous quality and spontaneity, but their consistency is still a challenge for them. As that mental connection strengthens, they will cause havoc for other teams, and (captain) Jhaniele Fowler does a good job of uniting her players.”

With a large and talented squad, home court advantage, and more match practice than any other country, England are shaping as the team to beat in the Commonwealth Games. Coach Jess Thirlby’s most difficult decision will be who to leave out, with experienced players and exciting youngsters jostling to make the final cut.

There are half a dozen certainties – Jo Harten, Helen Housby, Nat Haythornthwaite, Serena Guthrie, Layla Gusgoth and Geva Mentor – but other than that it’s still bibs in the air, with key decisions to be made around utility players vs positional specialists.

Marinkovich said, “You can see the experience and level heads of the English group. They are showing great focus, and a strong degree of professionalism on court.”

The Quad series will take place between the 15th and 19th of January, 2022, at the Copperbox Arena, London, as long as travel is permitted. The four nations will play each other once, followed by a play-off between the first and second, and third and fourth finishing sides. Telecast details will be confirmed.

 

The Australian Diamonds 2021 squad pic 1

Having an Australian squad of this size helped to build depth, and enabled much needed match play to take place. Image courtesy of Netball Australia

About the Author:

Physiotherapist, writer and netball enthusiast. Feature articles, editorials and co-author of "Shine: the making of the Australian Netball Diamonds". Everyone has a story to tell, and I'm privileged to put some of them on paper. Thank you to the phenomenal athletes, coaches and people in the netball world who open a door to their lives, and let me tiptoe in.